Background: It is now well established that persistent nonsynaptic neuronal plasticity occurs after learning and, like synaptic plasticity, it can be the substrate for long-term memory. What still remains unclear, though, is how nonsynaptic plasticity contributes to the altered neural network properties on which memory depends. Understanding how nonsynaptic plasticity is translated into modified network and behavioral output therefore represents an important objective of current learning and memory research.
Results: By using behavioral single-trial classical conditioning together with electrophysiological analysis and calcium imaging, we have explored the cellular mechanisms by which experience-induced nonsynaptic electrical changes in a neuronal soma remote from the synaptic region are translated into synaptic and circuit level effects. We show that after single-trial food-reward conditioning in the snail Lymnaea stagnalis, identified modulatory neurons that are extrinsic to the feeding network become persistently depolarized between 16 and 24 hr after training. This is delayed with respect to early memory formation but concomitant with the establishment and duration of long-term memory. The persistent nonsynaptic change is extrinsic to and maintained independently of synaptic effects occurring within the network directly responsible for the generation of feeding. Artificial membrane potential manipulation and calcium-imaging experiments suggest a novel mechanism whereby the somal depolarization of an extrinsic neuron recruits command-like intrinsic neurons of the circuit underlying the learned behavior.
Conclusions: We show that nonsynaptic plasticity in an extrinsic modulatory neuron encodes information that enables the expression of long-term associative memory, and we describe how this information can be translated into modified network and behavioral output.